Stuck on five-kilometre leashes, we need someone to throw us a bone

Oh Melbourne, you’ve been so patient. It’s been more than three months since we first went into what was supposed to be a six-week lockdown. Remember the first time we pencilled the escape date into our calendars? We were giving up our freedoms to save lives. We have been united for a truly noble cause.

Lockdown bites: an empty Flinders Lane.Credit:Getty

But here we are again, eyeing yet another date on the calendar when we might be released – or then again, maybe not. The numbers that horrified us when they climbed from 5 to 725 in two months now just taunt us, remaining stubbornly higher than the five-a-day threshold that might unlock the heady freedoms of step three: walking into shops, ordering a meal, travelling to another suburb for no reason at all.

The rolling fortnightly average has been hovering around 10, so people are already adjusting their expectations as the numbers jump around, fuelled by little clusters around the city's shops and hospitals.

We’ve become accustomed to disappointment, but this week has been hard. Even expressing how fed up we are is difficult when feelings run so hot – someone reminds us to buck up and stay the course or they launch a jeremiad about how all restrictions are a dictatorial disgrace. Everyone in Melbourne should be allowed a moment to be gloomy without having to justify themselves.

Every Melburnian is allowed a moment or two to be gloomy without having to justify themselves. Credit:Jason South

We shared the first lockdown not only with the nation but with friends worldwide. This time, Melburnians have been cut off from the rest of the world and even each other. Fellow Australians remark airily on our predicament as if it were some character failing, politicians across borders exploit fears of "the Melbourne virus" in ways that will create lasting resentments. It’s been divisive, exhausting and dull.

We are grateful for small things: the crime tape removed from the playgrounds, the chance for five friends to eat sandwiches in the park without getting arrested. But lockdown without a parole date is taking its toll, especially on those caught in the undertow of anxiety about their livelihood, rent and future.

There was a rush to book haircuts and holidays as the numbers plunged, a testimony to the city’s willingness to do what it takes to battle the virus. But now families discuss the possibility they won’t see each other at Christmas time – not if a stubborn strain of infection keeps Melbourne's barricades mounted.

The Premier has been acknowledging as much. "I get it," he said at Wednesday's press conference. "Everyone is on a countdown. When it's safe to take a step, we will. We can't predict what tomorrow's numbers will look like, let alone another 12 or 14 days on."

Andrews has indicated he probably will let us take baby steps out of lockdown even if the numbers remain higher, but won't say which steps or when.

"I know that's frustrating. I know that's very challenging," he said on Thursday. "But we will have more to say in the days and weeks to come about what the rest of this year looks like."

In weeks to come. Even some of the keenest supporters have started to ask, when daily numbers are so low, if contact tracers and social distancing regulations couldn't keep 10 or so infections a day contained.

Opening up depends on the story behind the numbers: are they all in known outbreaks in aged care or hospitals or out in the community? If there are no mystery cases, maybe there’ll be some changes anyway. Which changes come when we don’t know, though Professor Sutton seems unenthusiastic about removing our 5-kilometre leash any time soon.

Other cities have tackled second surges – Singapore, Seoul – but they still record daily tallies in double digits as infections flare at schools or clubs or dorms. Melbourne has a tougher challenge, rooting out a strain seeded in the ranks of essential workers as we aim to drag our numbers down to match the rest of Australia's.

Andrews and Sutton insist they are not pursuing an elimination strategy – there will always be outbreaks – but they are aiming for numbers so low even the epidemiologists aren’t sure we can get there. The recent outbreaks have been triggered by people going to their jobs or making unwitting mistakes.

In a city of almost 5 million, not everyone will behave impeccably all the time. Even the most compliant may play a little loose with the thousand rules – visit the shops twice! stay out for two and a half hours! – but any infectious episode could jack a daily number above five.

Containing coronavirus is like trying to lock smoke in a box; it seeps through any cracks. Stay the course? There is nothing more we can do now to lower the daily average.

Staying home all day won’t stop a cleaner working a shift, won’t stop a nurse checking a patient, won’t stop a weary traveller ordering a meal. We’re played out and worn out. Like dogs who’ve been taught to sit and stay, there’s only so long before someone has to throw us a bone.

Michelle Griffin is a senior writer.

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